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June 8, 2020 - 6 minutes

What is a Hackathon?

You’ve heard of them, but do people really get together just to hack? Let’s discuss.

Juliette Carreiro - Tech Writer

You’ve definitely heard of a hackathon but you’re probably wondering: what is a hackathon? What’s the point? Who goes to one? What are they like? In this article, we’ll cover all those questions (and more!) and give you ten tips to absolutely mastering your next hackathon. 

What is a Hackathon? 

Don’t worry: you won’t have to hack anything! A hackathon is a social coding event where computer programmers and others interested in the subject come together to try to solve problems. They can last from just one day to several and are a friendly, engaging atmosphere where teamwork and innovation are highly valued. And what’s the point?! Well, apart from the obvious benefit of meeting like-minded people and working together to solve a problem, hackathons serve to: 

  • Solve an existing problem that a team’s been facing

  • Spark innovation and interest 

  • Use and learn from new technologies

  • Build teamwork and overall confidence

  • Network and meet like-minded professionals 

  • Learn from others 

Hackathons don’t have to be only with your company, though. The majority of hackathons are open to the public and you can join either with your team to tackle some of the bullet points we listed above or you can go alone–don’t worry, there will be other individuals who are looking to solve the problem and network. 

And hackathons are for everyone! Even if you have no coding or technical experience, you can still sign up for a hackathon and learn from those around you. 

How do hackathons work?

This is how they work and what you have to look forward to when you head to your first one. Each hackathon can have its peculiarities and differences, of course, but the majority will loosely follow the same format:

  1. The organizer presents the problem that the hackers will try to solve. 

  2. The organizer also introduces any rules/guidelines that participants will have to follow and explain how the results will be judged. 

  3. After all, it’s time to get to work! Participants split into teams and start working on their solution. 

  4. Once the predetermined time is up, which typically isn’t more than three days, groups will present their solutions to the judges. 

  5. Winners are announced and usually awarded cash prizes.

How can you prepare for a hackathon?

Heading into a hackathon, you’ll probably be wondering how you can start getting ready for the challenge. And while organizers tend to be quite tight-lipped about the actual problem you’ll be asked to solve, you can do some preparation beforehand so you’re ready to get to work. Here’s what to do beforehand: 

Research the organizer

Even if you don’t know the exact problem beforehand, some research on the organizer, their mission statement, their focus, and any previous hackathons they’ve led can help you start thinking about the right strategy before you’re in the thick of things. 

Decide the team’s roles

Your team will be tasked with a complex problem in a short amount of time; if you head into the hackathon with roles already assigned, you’ll save valuable time and be able to get right to work. 

Practice building

Some hackathons will request you use a specific software and others will let you do as you please; whatever the situation is, you’ll need to be able to work quickly. Practice creating templates beforehand and make sure you don’t waste time on things you could’ve learned beforehand. 

Now that you’re ready to take on your first (or maybe nth!) hackathon, let’s discuss some of our best tips and tricks to help you win that prize. 

10 Tips for Hackathons

Hackathon Tip #1: Dress for comfort

Hackathons are long. We mean days long. You’ll want to use your brain to think about maximum productivity and the first step for maximum concentration is being comfortable. Plan for the fact that you’re going to be up all night; it’s going to be hard, so make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Hackathon Tip #2: Be realistic 

Be realistic with your skill level and what you can do in the established time period. If you’re lacking in some area, find someone who can complement where you’re weaker. If you’re new to the field, go for the experience instead of the win. And if you show up without a team, look to join a team where you can learn from your teammates.

Hackathon Tip #3: Choose your project cautiously

When you’re thinking of your project, be realistic with the scope. Assume that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.  It’s better to do something well than not finishing something that was ambitious. Here’s a secret: most wins go to complete projects, even if they’re simpler.

Hackathon Tip #4: Have your supplies ready

It’s better to be over prepared than underprepared, right? You’ll be there for a while and using lots of brainpower. Bring snacks, a blanket, a pillow, energy drinks, your laptop, chargers, and anything else that will make the experience better.

Hackathon Tip #5: Understand why you’re at a hackathon

You’re there to do cool things and experiment outside of your normal tasks; at a hackathon, you’ll be putting yourself under pressure to execute code that doesn't allow you to slack off and procrastinate. Take advantage of this, try new things, and work hard.

Hackathon Tip #6: UXers… Be familiar with front end development

As a UX designer, it’s important to have some front end development knowledge. Even if you’re not good at implementing, you will be able to slide into the workflow and be able to hand off work easier, knowing when you’re getting in the way. Start with videos or tutorials, but just try and make basic web pages to familiarize yourself with the process.

Hackathon Tip #7: Avoid being a team just to be on a team

Only join teams that you are a good fit for; It’s better to be on your own than force yourself on a team where you’re not active because you’ll short yourself on the learning experience. Don’t be afraid to go solo. When choosing your team, make sure personality and talent fit.

Hackathon Tip #8: Know the difference between Hacking vs Hackathon

It’s a common misconception that “hacking” means you’re breaking into something. But hackathons are not that! The traditional definition is piecing something together by using creative thinking in a way that hasn’t been done before in a short period of time.

Hackathon Tip #9: Find the low hanging fruit

Low hanging fruit are easy implementations that wow judges and can help you place at hackathons. If there are API sponsors at the event, utilize their software! Even if your app isn’t the best, you can still win sponsored prizes for including them in your work.

Hackathon Tip #10: Don’t freak out!

Tensions get high at hackathons. Late nights and long hours can make anyone break. But trust me, you don’t want to be the one that freaks out and has a breakdown. Remember, this is all for fun and learning. If something doesn’t work, use your best resources to troubleshoot.

Have we convinced you? Are you ready to head to your first hackathon? If you are, we can’t wait to hear how you do. And if you’re interested in polishing your skills a bit more before you dive into the world of hackathons, check out our web development bootcamp. You’ll be winning hackathons before long! 

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